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FAMILY LIFE (ZYCIE RODZINNE)(director/writer/editor: Krzysztof Zanussi; cinematographer: Witold Sobocinski; cast: Daniel Olbrychski (Wit), Jan Kreczmar (Father), Halina Mikolajska (Aunt), Maja Komorowska (Bella), Jan Nowicki (Marek), Anna Milewska (Translator); Runtime: 93; Tor Unit Film Polski; 1971-Poland)
“The dramatic question here becomes how do you honor a father who won’t let you love him!”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Wit (Olbrychski) is the prodigal son of a once wealthy Polish family. The grandfather owned a glass factory that is now state-owned. That he looks like James Dean is an odd coincidence, causing me to wonder how much more evocative this role would have been if played by Dean. Olbrychski’s laconic performance only adds to the film’s dreariness.

Wit’s quiet disposition enabled him to weather his family troubles, which was constant all during his youth. Wit has been tricked into returning home after 6 years of being away, when he receives a wire that his alcoholic father (Kreczmar) is severely ill. The once wealthy family is now left only with bittersweet memories and a mansion in ruin, and are hemmed-in by public housing developments being built all around them. The beautiful garden goes uncared for, while the furniture is sold to give them money to live on. Wit’s sex-crazed and suicidal sister, Bella (Maja), has stayed at home, but appears to be too mentally deficient to help herself or the family. Wit’s mother deserted the family long ago. Even the flea-ridden dog is a basket case. The only hope for the family’s future lies with Wit, who is an engineer in Charzow and is trying to break clean from the grips of this dysfunctional family.

Wit returns to his family home with his university friend and fellow workplace engineer, Marek (Nowicki). He never told the peasant boy much about his family, so Marek is surprised at what he sees. Wit is for the most part embarrassed and unsure of how to react. He tries to convey his love to his family, but love cannot be easily accepted in this desperate household. They want him to stay with them and sink or swim with them, something that Wit cannot do.

The two most impactful scenes are staged with methodical efficiency. The father-son dialogue is a classic Oedipal confrontational scene. The father accusing the son of being an egotist, caring only about saving himself. Telling the son that they are both alike, you can’t let go of your roots. The son offers his love, but doesn’t know what he can do in such a lugubrious setting. Wit begs the father for understanding, but all the father can understand is that communism ruined the family — that he is no longer a wealthy or respected figure.

The other provocative scene involves Marek being attracted to Bella, perhaps because of her good looks or because she represents a more noble bloodline than his. Marek has always deferred to the more gifted Wit and, perhaps, as a way of getting back at him for his patronizing attitude, he pursues his sister. When Wit discovers that Marek made love to his sister he displays no anger, he only tells him to drive carefully as he is leaving. This response angers Marek more than if he was chewed out. Marek responds by saying, “Is that all you can say! I’m tired of you always being superior.”

This work is a good example of classic Polish neo-realism. It might be a little too stagy for all tastes, especially those who like their films to be more lushly photographed and with more action. The dramatic question becomes how do you honor a father who won’t let you love him!


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”